We asked a registered psychologist everything you’ve ever wanted to know about therapy

In other parts of the world, visiting the therapist is as openly discussed, and as often carried out, as the routine grocery shop. In this country, however, the stigma surrounding mental health still remains, despite one-in-six New Zealand adults being diagnosed with a common mental disorder at some point in their lives. We talked to Sabine Visser, a registered clinical psychologist, to understand more about the therapy process and discover why, ultimately, we should all be learning to open up a little more.

Why do people turn to therapy? Therapy works. It can change how you feel and think about the issues in your life so that they are no longer burdens but strengths.

Who should be going to a therapist? Anybody who experiences difficulties in relationships, life transitions or who has substance and/or abuse issues. Feelings of being overwhelmed and hopelessness are also times you should seek some help, or even if you are just feeling sad or lacking motivation — sometimes you just need to talk to somebody.

What should we expect from a first therapy session? First sessions are about getting to know the therapist and the therapist getting to know you. Often, first sessions are a little awkward and there are lots of questions. Some therapists start by taking down a life history and a history of the problem, which can be a bit challenging. A good therapist will pace the session so that it is not overwhelming, allowing the relationship to develop naturally and trust to build.

How do you make your clients feel relaxed? As a therapist, it’s important to understand that it is difficult to talk about emotionally distressing material to somebody you don’t know or necessarily trust. To ease clients in, we start small by talking about things that are pleasant and mostly superficial. Giving feedback and listening intently is important to make the client feel heard and comfortable, from there they can then set their own pace.

If you don’t feel a connection with a client, will you refer them to somebody else? What happens in that situation? If I struggle with a client I will discuss this with them and we’ll both make a decision on whether or not to refer. It is important to take ownership of the issues and to make sure that the client doesn’t feel blamed or think that they have done something wrong.

What can someone expect to achieve in therapy? Therapy is not a miracle cure where you see the therapist once and it changes everything. However, it does offer a safe environment in which you can express your feelings and gain a deeper insight into your difficulties. This gives you an opportunity to find better ways of making changes, in order to help manage the way you think or behave.

How many sessions does it take to see results? Therapy can be short term or long term depending on the issues being faced. That said, changes do occur and this is often very early. With good therapy, the first change is that you no longer feel as though you are alone in your difficulties, realising that you have the support and understanding of somebody. 

The biggest part of being a therapist is being a good listener, are there any techniques you can give that would make those not in the profession better at listening? Stop what you are doing and be in the moment. Reflect back what you hear to check that you have heard it correctly. Don’t tell people what to do. Be encouraging and don’t rush, be patient.

For someone who is on the fence, what advice would you give? Go and have a session before you decide. The hardest part is going the first time, it becomes easier after that.

For someone who really doesn’t want to talk to a therapist, what alternative routes would you recommend? Talk to friends and peers. Talking to your GP can be helpful, and there is always Lifeline, too. Asking for help is a good thing and nothing to be ashamed of! Exercise, eat well and sleep well, it is important to look after your body as it will take care of your head. Don’t give up, there is always a solution it just may not be obvious right now.

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